The Sweet Smell of Success – In the mist of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Stephen Smith discovers the story behind Rondavel Soap.
Pictures: Geoff Redman/Redmanmedia
I’ve just met Kate Chanthunya in the swirling mist of Hilton and we’re off to see some of her suppliers, other small, local businesses that are playing their part in creating the scintillating scents that envelop us.
As we drive (slowly in the mist, and getting lost every now and then) Kate tells me how Rondavel Soaps got started. She met her husband, Chikondi, at Pietermaritzburg university where they were both studying the sciences, she botany and he agriculture. After varsity they went to Malawi, Chikondi’s home country.
“When our first son, Jesse, was about six months old we realised that all the bum creams were full of chemicals, so we started looking around for something more natural. All we could find were imported and expensive, so we started making our own from macadamia oil and beeswax, both common in Malawi. People started asking for some and we made more, and eventually started selling the cream at markets.”
At that moment we drive past a protea farm, one of the landmarks we had been told to watch out for, almost lost in the mist. There we meet Dave Edgcumbe, farm manager at AG Power, where Kate buys some of the essential oils she uses in her products.
The mist is closing in as Dave walks and talks us through their operation. “We grow rosemary, thyme, lavender and rose geranium here, for the fresh-herb market and essential oils.” He tells us about the irrigation, the harvesting and the learning curve they’ve experienced since getting into the market – the farm also does more traditional things like timber and sugar.
As we walk past the different herbs he picks some and crushes them, releasing the basis of the scents that will later go into Kate’s products. Dave and Kate discuss what other herbs could be grown for their oils, and what could be experimented with. Dave and his team recently cleared a patch of blackjacks and instead of destroying them decided to see what the oils would be like.
“It didn’t turn out that well,” says Dave with a laugh. “It was quite sticky, but the scent was very interesting.” But all essential oils need to be approved before they can be used in products, which limits the number of indigenous species that can be farmed.
But it’s not just the oils that Kate is interested in. The distillation process also produces hydrosol – distilled water containing low percentages of essential oils. It still has the same distinctive aromas, but far more subtle. Dave lets us smell the blackjack hydrosol, which smells a little like a cut lawn, but with peppery, spicy undertones. Just smelling it is fun and reminds me of wine tasting.
The herbs seen and Kate’s business concluded, we head back into the clinging whiteness, en route to Mpophomeni township outside Howick. Some of Kate’s products are sold together in little wooden boxes, and we’re about to visit the man who makes the boxes. Thembi Sithole is the man covered in sawdust, who has been running his carpentry business for the past three years.
“I worked for an old man in Howick for nine years, and when he retired I bought the business from him. Now I make all sorts of things, like picture frames, ring boxes and these boxes for Kate. I call my business Light of the Future, because that is what it is to me.” Kate and Thembi discuss Kate’s order, which is almost ready, while Thembi’s brother carries on work in the background, making dozens and dozens of tiny ring boxes. The air is thick with the smell of pine sap.
Thembi isn’t Mpophomeni’s only attraction though. For the past year or so a small group of determined women have created a green oasis, a veggie garden that would have pride of place in any suburb. And it was all done with minimal funding, and on a piece of land that had up until then been used as the local dump. Now it creates income for the women, and people are often popping in to buy veggies, work in the garden or buy seeds and seedlings for their gardens. When we arrive, though, it’s empty – the first time that Kate has seen it not being worked on. We later find that the ladies are teaching a community in Bergville about permaculture that day.
Kate comes here for calendula petals, which she uses in her baby range for their soothing, healing properties, but also buys fresh, organic veggies for her home. “As a small business we love supporting other small businesses. We know how much we appreciate any business we are given, so we like to do the same.”
The mist and rain are beginning to let up as we head back to Howick, to Kate’s home. “We loved living in Malawi, but inflation was out of control and it was getting very difficult to find things and to make a living. We spent eight years there, though, before we decided to try soap-making as a full-time business and came to South Africa in 2012.”
At that moment we drive past the Angel’s Care Centre for children. “My boys (she has three) make fun shapes from our off-cuts and then we drop them off there,” says Kate.
Now we’re at Kate and Chikondi’s home, where Chikondi is just starting to cut a batch of lemongrass and charcoal soap in the garage that they use as a factory. With beautiful swirls of black marble, the yellow soap looks and smells good enough to serve with tea.
“The more we researched soap, the more we realised that the soap you buy from shops these days often contains chemicals that can irritate the skin. We use only natural raw ingredients, all from sustainable sources, and all from Africa. We don’t use palm oil, but rather oils from African trees like the marula and baobab. These aren’t ‘glycerine soaps’, made by buying a block of glycerine-based soap, melting it, adding aromatics and then letting it set again. We make our soaps from scratch, to be safe and gentle on the skin.”
On a table in another room is the complete range of Rondavel products, and it’s impressive. There are the soaps, obviously, which come in quite a few ‘flavours’, Cape Chamomile and Geranium, Blue Mountain Sage, Marula and Charcoal, Hops and Hemp, Milk and Honey with Geranium, Wild Dagga and Cedar, and more.
They are currently making a bespoke soap for a lodge in the Drakensberg, using aloes and other plants from the property. Then there are oils and soaps for beards and shaving (how about High Grassland for a scent?),
dog soaps, balms and even a deodorant, under their Botany Lab label. And Rondavel is busy launching two new ranges – one for babies (Baobab Baba) and another for mothers (Marula Mama), both safe and natural.
In the sitting room, the couple wraps the soaps by hand, whiling away many a night. The wrappings are beautiful, and another extension of Kate’s talents – she creates all the artwork and it’s as beautiful as the products.
Just before I leave I ask Kate why ‘Rondavel’? “I love rondavels,” she says with a laugh. “I love it when form follows function, which is exactly what rondavels do. I hope that one day we’ll be able to build a rondavel to use as our factory. They’re also built from local ingredients and are fully biodegradable, just like our soaps. In fact, we even use the essential oil of the same thatching grass in one of our soaps.”
These are some of Kate and Chikondi’s favourite ingredients:
- Baobab (Adansonia digitata): Spending eight years in Malawi made us fall in love with these iconic trees. Using the fruit is a sustainable way to prevent the trees being cut down, and the fruit powder and seed oil are packed with incredible phytonutrients and essential fatty acids.
- Rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil: This is a popular cosmetic ingredient around the world, and I am always proud that it is indigenous to South Africa. The warm yet fresh rosy scent is
- Cape Chamomile (Eriocephalus punctulatus) essential oil: Though not related to the European chamomiles, this little indigenous plant produces a beautiful blue essential oil common to chamomile. This high azulene content promotes skin healing, and peaceful sleep. We source ours from biological growers in the Cederberg.
- Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) oil is sourced from Swaziland, and improves skin elasticity and gives skin a lovely silky feel. The fruit are wild harvested, and the seeds extracted and cold pressed.
- Wild dagga (Leonotis leonorus) essential oil is rare and very special and we get it from the Hogsback area in the Eastern Cape, where a company called Essential Amathole empowers local small-scale farmers by assisting them to grow essential oil crops, and distilling them in the field. This particular oil (not at all narcotic) has a fresh honeyed, herby scent, and is used traditionally to soothe itchy skin.
- Rondavel Soaps: Kate Chanthunya, 078 314 5855, [email protected], www.facebook.com/rondavelsoaps
- Light of the Future: Thembi Sithole, 083 980 0260
- AG Power essential oils: Dave Edgcumbe, 079 729 2540
- Mpophomeni Conservation Group: www.facebook.com/MpopConserve